Hong Kong busts a myth of foreign ‘black hands’

Beijing’s claim that the West was behind the territory’s protests was shattered by Hong Kong’s leader, who now admits the people’s grievances.

A man in Hong Kong watches the territory's chief executive, Carrie Lam, announce the formal withdrawal of an unpopular extradition bill that sparked protests.

For three months, as protesters in Hong Kong have demanded basic civic rights, China’s state-run media have depicted them as tools of outside powers. Its foreign minister warned “Western forces” to “pull back the black hand you have shown.” One American diplomat was targeted for allegedly instigating the demonstrations.

On Wednesday, however, the pro-Beijing leader of Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, popped this myth of a foreign conspiracy. And perhaps along with it, she challenged the Communist Party’s narrative of China as a continuous victim of foreign interference that needs the dictatorial rule of the party.

Her message was evident in her withdrawal of a bill that would have permitted China to extradite alleged offenders in Hong Kong for trial on the mainland, which lacks independent courts. She acknowledged the widespread grievances of people in Hong Kong. And she based her U-turn on the need to “fully allay public concerns.” No foreign “hand” was blamed.

Despite her concession on the extradition bill, protesters vow to keep pressing their other demands, such as universal suffrage. Yet at least now Beijing’s strong backing of the measure has been shown to be a mistake, damaging its credibility. And it can no longer claim a Western conspiracy behind protests that Ms. Lam deems quite legitimate.

Many authoritarian rulers have invented an evil enemy to justify their oppression or to divert attention from domestic problems. In the digital age, such lies are difficult to pull off. And with a bit of truth-telling, such as Ms. Lam’s admission that the protests are valid, the alleged evil loses its force.

In addition, Ms. Lam said Hong Kong needs “a common basis” to start a dialogue about public grievances and “this has to start with the chief executive.” This is a rare case of self-reflection for a leader so closely tied to the Communist Party.

Since 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s party has pegged its survival on convincing Chinese they are vulnerable to foreign powers. In Hong Kong, however, that narrative has been challenged by protests that seek to keep the rights and liberties left behind by British rule before 1997, when the territory was handed over to China.

With the myth of evil forces now busted by one of its own, the party might want to follow Ms. Lam’s example and engage in self-reflection. False claims of enemies fall fast these days.

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